© 2008  Ray Wong


I can just imagine the pitch for Untraceable: "It's Silence of the Lambs meets Hostel meets YouTube." That's right, it's a techno-thriller with a bit of torture porn thrown in for the Internet age.

u1FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a cyber-expert: her specialty is to beat cyber criminals at their game. When she gets a tip on a new website called KillWithMe.com, her initial disgust turns into fascination: the website is practically untraceable. The owner of the site has found a way to move around, stealing resources from around the world, leaving a trail of false leads for the FBI to chase after.

u2At first, the site only obtains mild notoriety for streaming live the torture death of a kitten. Alarmed, Marsh is told by her boss Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis) that it's not something that interests the FBI, even as she warns him about the potential of the site. That is, until the site starts to stream the live torture of a pilot named Herbert Miller (Tim De Zarn). Apparently, the more people to view the site, the faster Miller will be killed. And before you know it, and to the FBI's dismay, the website becomes an instant hit. The more press attention it gets, the more people visit, and Marsh fails to block the site despite her continuous effort.

u3As more people get abducted and killed live, and as more and more people visit the website, Marsh, with the help of detective Eric Box (Billy Burke), is racing against time to find the identity of the killer, who seems to be always one step ahead of them. Worse, the killer knows who Marsh is and where she lives...

u4Diane Lane (Hollywoodland) tries something new by playing an FBI agent -- not only that, she's also a computer nerd. Too bad, Lane is too classy and pretty to play a nerd. It's not as if her performance is not convincing. It's just that the lack of character development renders her rather one-dimensional. And you'd have thought that for all she does on the job, she would safeguard her home computers more effectively. That said, Lane gives an interesting performance that gives the male-dominant thriller a softer side.

u5Billy Burke (Fracture) is fine playing yet another cop. Again, his character is poorly developed. The hint of relationship between him and agent Marsh is glossed over. Burke is not allowed to show a wider range of emotions, and the performance feels stunted. Colin Hanks (King Kong) is interesting as Marsh's sidekick and he, unlike Diane Lane, looks the part. You can't help but like the guy. Meanwhile, Joseph Cross (Running with Scissors) plays against type as the disturbed killer. His cold stares and wicked smile are creepy and effective. Unfortunately, he, too, suffers from a lack of character development.

u6The screenplay by writing team Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) has an interesting and timely high concept. As the Internet becomes more prevalent and ubiquitous, we often wonder how it would change our social mores, how people are desensitized by what they see or hear online every day, when instant gratification is the norm in cyber culture. I think the first act of the film successful captures this paradigm and creates enough suspense to string us along. Even the techno-babble sounds plausible, and only a true computer geek like me would catch the flaws.

u7However, once the killing starts, the plot falters. I was hoping for more cat-and-mouse game exploring the technologies, and how Marsh would be able to crack the killer's code to catch him. There's some but hardly enough, and it seems that the screenwriters just drop the ball. It seems that they've figured they couldn't possibly stay believable if they go on with the techno stuff. So they settled for a run-of-the-mill thriller with some surface psycho-babble thrown in. The result is unconvincing, implausible, and predictable. The plot loses steam in the third act. So many missed opportunities.

u8Director Gregory Hoblit (Fracture) does a good job giving the film a tight pace and ample suspense. I think they make a mistake revealing the killer early on -- they could have used the suspense a bit longer. But I can't really fault that on the director. The torture scenes are rather disturbing, but it's not like we haven't seen them before -- so what does it say about us? Are we so desensitized already? I give the director credit for showing just enough of the torture, then cutting away and letting our imagination take over. I think it's very effective. While it is far from the horror and grit of something like Se7en, the film does succeed in achieving certain heightened tension, only to have it dragged down by some rather silly sequences.

Over all, Untraceable is entertaining but misses the mark. The story falls short of making it a truly mesmerizing serial killer thriller/drama. Ultimately, it's unremarkably forgettable.

Stars: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Writers: Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, Allison Burnett
Distributor: Screen Gems/Lakeshore
MPAA Rating: R for grisly violence and torture, and some language
Running Time: 100 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing –6
Production – 7

Total – 6.5 out of 10

There Will Be Blood

© 2008  Ray Wong


Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil, There Will Be Blood is an intimate, close-up character study of a man driven by ambition, power and greed. And with Daniel Day-Lewis in the central role and Paul Thomas Anderson's direction, the film has a lot of promise.

p1Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an oil prospector who goes from one place to another to help folks drill for oil. But he's not happy with just doing that. So when Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) gives him a tip on his family property, Plainview sets off with his son, H.W., to buy the property on false pretense. Soon, though, Plainview's true intention is revealed and he promises Eli Sunday (also Paul Dano) that he will give $5000 to Eli's church and help build up the town.

p2When Eli tells Plainview that he wants to bless the oil drill before they begin, Plainview agrees but later stiffs Eli. Then bad things happen -- workers get killed; H.W. gets hurt -- and Eli tries to convince Plainview that he is a sinner, and that he should join Eli's church. Plainview thinks Eli is a fraud and dismisses him completely. Not willing to work for anyone else, Plainview rejects an offer from the rail companies (which would have made him a very rich man) and decides to work with the oil union by building a direct pipeline to the coast. Meanwhile, his relationship with H.W. deteriorates as he doesn't know how to communicate and take care of his son anymore.

p3Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) is one of the best actors of our times. His intensity is legendary. Here, as Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis transforms himself in both speech and mannerism to portray a Texan oilman with perfection. He could do no wrong. He could do rage, insanity, solitude, and repressed love so  effortlessly. The Best Actor Oscar is for him to lose.

p4The second biggest role in the film belongs to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) who plays brothers Paul and Eli Sunday. Dano first got our attention in that little film that could last year, and he is impressive playing a dual role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Their final confrontation is something to watch. And as Plainview's son H.W., Dillon Freasier has the expressive angelic face to make us care about him. Surprisingly, his character is the most multi-dimensional (Russell Howard plays the older H.W.). Kevin J. O'Connor (Flight of the Living Dead) gives a solid performance as a man who claims to be Plainview's brother, Henry.

p5However, the film really is a Daniel Day-Lewis Show. All the characters, including Eli Sunday (Paul Sunday disappears after his brief scene near the beginning), are peripheral next to Daniel Plainview. From the very beginning of the film to the end, it is clear that it's a biopic of Plainview, chronicling his descent from ambition to insanity.

p6Slow and deliberate, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's (Magnolia) script is a detailed character study, and Daniel Plainview is a fascinating figure to watch. The first twenty minutes or so are completely void of dialogue. It's true brilliance and reveals so much about Plainview's character. As the film progresses, we find out more and more about Plainview, with some startling discovery about his past and psychology. He is not evil, but he is a deeply flawed man, and somehow Anderson makes us care.

p7Anderson's direction is like poetry on screen. In addition to the spellbinding twenty minutes in the beginning, there are many other breathtaking scenes. The derrick fire, for example, is extremely well done, dramatic, and intense. In fact, the first half of the film, despite its slow pace, is intense and interesting.

p8However, the story loses some steam in the second half. Even as Anderson reveals more about Plainview's character, we don't sense that there's any change or development, just more revelations. We do see how the fractures in Plainview's personality start to crack. However, to me, the second half of the film loses certain narrative momentum. It's worsened by a time jump at the end, without a lot of explanation of what happened in those 16 years, which leads to an unsatisfying confrontation between Plainview and the grown H.W. The final scene between Plainview and Eli, however, is odd, absurd, but regains the narrative intensity earlier in the film. And the last line is brilliant.

I enjoyed There Will Be Blood very much and believe it's one of the finest films this year. Great cinematography that harks back to Hollywood's golden years, and a modernistic score that is perfect for the film. However, I think Anderson could have tightened the second act more and added more development at the end of the film to make this a true masterpiece. Even with its flaws, though, I predict for the film, there will be Oscars.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Sydney McCallister
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel, Oil, by Upton Sinclair)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Running Time: 158 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.9 out of 10

The Bucket List

© 2008 Ray Wong


Message movies are a rage now, from war-related films to Lifetime-type inspirational. The Bucket List unabashedly belongs to the latter, with themes ranging from mortality, life, regrets and male bonding.

b1Carter (Morgan Freeman) is a mechanic and a grandfather who just discovers that he has cancer. During his treatment at the hospital, he is roomed with the hospital's owner, billionaire Edward (Jack Nicholson), a self-imposed bachelor who is also being treated with cancer. They form an unlikely friendship despite their differences in personalities, world views, and lifestyles.

b2When Carter and Edward discover that both their illnesses are inoperable and they only have months to live, they set out to create what Carter calls a "Bucket List" -- a list of things they'd like to accomplish before they, well, kick the bucket. After 45 years of losing himself in his job and family, Carter agrees to allow some free time for himself and go do all these "crazy things" with Edward, who professes to have always been married to his work. Together, they set out to see and experience the world. During that time, their friendship deepens and each learn a few things about life.

b3Jack Nicholson (The Departed) seems to play the same role over and over these days; he's possibly the most famously typecast actor in Hollywood. But. He does it so well. He callous, overbearing, loud and obnoxious tycoon is fun to watch. Likewise, Morgan Freeman (Feast of Love) also does his tried-and-true tricks as the solemn, deep and philosophical man, complete with a divine voice-over narration. Though both their roles are clichéd, these two legends succeed in working their own brands of thespian magic and manage to foster a genuine on-screen relationship that is key to the success of this sentimental take on It's a Wonderful Life.

b4The supporting cast includes Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) who puts in an understated but smart performance as Edward's deadpan yet quick-witted assistant. Beverly Todd (Crash) is wonderfully sincere and nuanced as Carter's concerned wife. Rob Morrow (The Guru) is rather wasted, though, as Edward's oncologist. Morgan's real son, Alfonso Freeman (Ten 'Til Noon) is very much the younger version of his father, and does a fine job with his brief role.

b5The script by Justin Zackham (Going Greek) is an admirable attempt in reminding us what life is about, even when we're senior citizens. However, the first half act of the movie (in the hospital) drags and could have been tightened up -- we really just want to see what kind of crazy things Carter and Ed are going to do. The movie picks up its pace once Carter and Ed are on the move. That's when the fun begins.

b6The character development is excellent and the unlikely relationship between Carter and Ed is handled nicely. However, peripheral characters are pushed on the side as we focus on Carter and Ed. There are times when the story and dialogue feels heavy-handed and preachy, especially when Carter is trying to philosophize what life means. Certain sections feel drawn-out and too sentimental, even for a movie like this.

b7Even with the flaws of the script, director Rob Reiner (Rumor Has It) puts it together masterfully. Granted, there are scenes that do look too CG (the Taj Mahal, for example), and the pacing is off at certain points. But Reiner is a pro in bringing us stories of the heart, and here, he succeeds in making us really care and root for two geezers of different temperaments. Certain heart-felt scenes do put a lump in our throats even a as we attempt to fight such sentimentality. I mean, how can you not be affected when you're watching two good guys trying to make the best of everyone as they wait for death? There's a small twist at the end that is very touching.

b8So while the film is far from perfect and can use a tighter edit and benefit from a lighter and less preachy tone, it is surprisingly interesting, warm and inviting to make it into anyone's bucket list.

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Alfonso Freeman, Rowena King
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Justin Zackham
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference
Running Time: 97 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 7.1 out of 10


© 2008 Ray Wong


The indie darling of the season is definitely Juno, a teenage comedy that is a cross between Ghost World and Knocked Up. The film is getting a lot of attention and excellent traction at the box office.

photo1Juno (Ellen Page) is a high school kid who just finds out she's pregnant by her one-time boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). She can't go through with an abortion, so she decides to go through with it and give the baby up for adoption. With the help of her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and best friend Leah (Olivia Thrilby), she finds a perfect couple to adopt her baby: musician Mark (Jason Bateman) and his lovely wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner).

photo2But nothing is as simple as it may seem. Juno is experiencing all the mood swings she's not used to. And she's developing an unhealthy crush on Mark, and Vanessa reveals herself as quite a control freak. Also, her relationship with Bleeker is hanging in the balance, as they both don't know what to do with themselves and the baby, if the adoption falls through.

photo3Ellen Page (X-Men: The Last Stand) in an ingenue to watch. Her dead-on deliverance and cool portrayal of the smarty-mouthed teenager is winsome. Even though her character is a bit too quirky to feel completely realistic, Page makes her so endearing that you can't help but root for her. Likewise, Michael Cera (Superbad) has that awkward, geeky goodness pegged. He and Page don't really have a lot of chemistry together but they play off each other well.

photo4Jennifer Garner (The Kingdom) plays the uptight straight woman very well. In such a comedy, she does a good job anchoring the emotional core by playing an affecting, if somewhat cold-fish character authentically. Jason Bateman (The Kingdom) is adequate as the indifferent husband. His relaxed performance is relevant to the character, but I don't really get a connection with him.

photo5J.K. Simmons (Thank You For Smoking) is forever typecast as a curmudgeon redneck, but he does it so well, and this time with a really soft center. Allison Janney (Hairspray) has a minor role but delivers some of the film's best zingers. Unfortunately, Olivia Trirlby (Snow Angel) is nothing special in the obligatory BFF role.

photo6First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody hits the jackpot with Juno. The story is actually very simple and uncomplicated, clichéd even. There is nothing spectacular about the plot -- it's very predictable. What excels in Cody's script that connects so well with the audiences are the character relationships and dialogue. Cody's characters are sharp-tongued and quick-witted. The dialogue is deliciously funny, especially when delivered by the charismatic Ellen Page. While a bit on the caricature side, the characters are well-drawn and they have some genuine relationships with one another. That's refreshing. However, like I said, the story is rather simplistic; it lacks certain je nais se quois, perhaps an edge that was present in last year's indie darling, Little Miss Sunshine. And the final act, while sweet and lighthearted, lacks that oomph to deliver the final punch.

photo7Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) instills his brand of wit in this urban fairytale. Calling it a fairytale is not too radical. The plot is stylized, as are the characters. One could only dream of having such supportive parents like Juno's. And her boyfriend just sort of accepts his role as an unwanted father? A bit unbelievable. But under Reitman's lighthearted hands, the characters come across as extremely likable. Still, Reitman is hampered by the flat nature of the story, and he hasn't shown the edge he did in Thank You For Smoking.

photo8That said, Juno is an entertaining little film with a social-conscious topic. It is so uncynical that it's refreshing. Despite its lack of an edge, the film is a sweet concoction of feel-good and warm-and-fuzzy. A certain crowd-pleaser that is going to do very well with a board audience, pregnant or not.

Stars: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Rainn Wilson
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: PG-13 mature thematic material, sexual content, and language
Running Time: 92 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing –7

Production – 8

Total – 7.3 out of 10